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‘It was a real trauma’: the TS Eliot poetry prize winner on his turbulent upbringing

He grew up in Jamaica, thinking his grandmother was his mother, learning how to read from a blackboard on her veranda. What does Jason Allen-Paisant plan to do now? Fly to Ethiopia to meet his father for the first time

‘Let’s see what the adjectives are,” says Jason Allen-Paisant – as if to make it even more obvious that he is a poet – when I ask how he’s feeling the morning after winning the TS Eliot prize for poetry. “Great. Overwhelmed. Ecstatic. Privileged.”

Although you wouldn’t know it from his warmth and attentiveness, he is also very tired. The 43-year-old writer and academic couldn’t sleep properly after the ceremony, and ended up taking a walk through London in the early hours of the morning. “It’s not that I wasn’t expecting to win,” he explains. He knows his victorious work, Self-Portrait as Othello, is a “strong book” – it had already won the Forward prize for best collection, and is on the shortlist for the Writers’ prize (previously known as the Rathbones Folio prize). But “it’s mad”, he says, to be named the winner from a shortlist that included “at least two” poets whose work Allen-Paisant has taught to his students at Manchester university, where he is a senior lecturer in critical theory and creative writing.

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